Review: PALI ROAD, An Intriguing Thriller That Doesn't Quite Go The Distance
Pali Road, the romantic mystery thriller directed by Jonathan Lim, derives its title from an actual road on the island of Oahu, Hawaii, where the film is set. This road is said to be haunted, with many mysterious and unexplainable happenings said to have taken place there.
The film injects the mysteries, spiritual atmosphere, and landscape beauty of Hawaii into the familiar genre trappings of the psychological thriller, centered on the story of Lily Zhang (Michelle Chen), a young doctor practicing in Oahu. Pali Road references both Hawaiian and Chinese legends, attempting to use these cultural touchstones to inject some novelty into the often overworked tropes of psychological thrillers.
It succeeds at times in this quest, benefiting greatly from the committed and mostly credible work by its diverse cast, but ultimately, the overly tentative and too hazily conceived scriptwriting -- penned by Doc Pedrolie and Victoria Arch --holds the film back from being a fully satisfying and realized movie.
Pali Road opens as Lily, just out of medical school and now doing her residency at a hospital in Oahu, fails to save one of her patients, becoming quite despondent over it. Her supervising doctor Mitch Kayne (Sung Kang) tells her to keep her head up and to not lose sight of her goals. We learn later that Mitch isn’t just Lily’s boss; the two had a brief fling in the past that she broke off. Mitch, however, still can’t quite let her go, even though now Lily is seeing Neil (Jackson Rathbone), a schoolteacher on the island. Combined with the fact that in later scenes Mitch – most pertinently at a swanky hospital staff party – comes across as kind of a jerk, this makes his continued ministrations toward Lily veer dangerously close to sexual harassment.
Lily, however, though she likes Neil a lot, has qualms about fully committing to him, most obviously demonstrated when she rejects his elaborate marriage proposal – complete with a cute picture book drawn by his students – driving a definite wedge between the two. Lily wants to remain focused on her career goals, and she is also quite mindful of the disapproval of her parents (Tzi Ma and Elizabeth Sung) concerning her relationship with Neil, which seems mostly due to the fact that he’s Caucasian; Mitch was much more to their liking.
This leads to a fight, which causes the fateful event that will spin this story into a very different direction. While driving home after the failed proposal, Lily and Neil argue over what has just happened, Lily insisting that she’s not yet ready for marriage, while Neil berates her for being overly cautious and fearful. While they’re fighting, Neil, who’s been driving, takes his eyes off the road, causing them to collide with another vehicle.
When Lily awakens in the next scene, she’s not in a hospital bed, as we’d expect, but at home. However, this is not the home where she’s been living with Neil, but in another place with Mitch. To her confusion and horror, Mitch insists that he’s her husband, and in fact they have a young son named James (Maddox Lim). Mitch, as well as everyone else around her, insists that this Neil she keeps talking about is a figment of her imagination, a symptom of delayed amnesia from a concussion caused by another accident that happened in this alternate reality Lily has been thrust into.
Lily continues to have flashbacks and memories of her life with Neil, recalling how they met and other significant moments of their relationship. But everyone else, including her best friend Amy (Lauren Sweetser), Mitch’s psychotherapist friend Tim (Henry Ian Cusick), and even Lily’s parents, tells her that other life never really existed. Lily, however, refuses to believe them, and doggedly searches for clues that will prove that she’s right, and that she’s not crazy. Her desperation escalates the tensions and conflicts between Lily and her loved ones, upsetting them and making them scared for her sanity and safety, and having them even contemplate committing her to an institution.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing about Pali Road is that the potential is clearly there for, if not exactly a cinematic masterwork, then at the very least, a superior iteration of its chosen genre. Also, in its intense focus on a woman living in parallel/alternate/fantasy worlds, it often splits the difference between the mass audience-friendly tropes of Sliding Doors and the moodier arthouse contours of The Double Life of Veronique.
Its biggest asset, beyond the Hawaii locations (evocatively shot by Quyen Tran), is its star Michelle Chen, the popular Taiwanese actress and singer who was such a winsome, charming, and quite lovely presence in the Taiwanese films You Are the Apple of My Eye and Hear Me. This is her first English language starring role, and though initially it's painfully obvious that English is her second language, resulting in some rather stiff line readings, this very much improves as the film goes along and she seemingly gets more comfortable and facile with her dialog, and she very nicely and sympathetically embodies her character's increasing disorientation and isolation.
Unfortunately, the film's debilitating Achilles heel is its ill-conceived, scattershot script, which really could have benefited from a few more rewrites before cameras rolled. In much the same way Lily isn't willing to fully commit to a life with Neil, so does Pali Road’s scenario seem unable to settle on an explanation for Lily's psychological and emotional predicament. The film hints and feints at multiple possibilities. For one, is Lily the victim of an elaborate hoax? Is she being gaslighted by Mitch, her family and friends? At one point, when Tim, the psychotherapist, tells Lily about how “we” are trying to help her, she demands to know, “Who's 'we'? Who are you working for?”
There are also possibilities raised of a supernatural explanation, possibly involving the mother of the young man who died at the beginning. Or maybe everyone around her is right, and Lily's just simply gone bonkers. But to make a navigational metaphor inspired by the film's title, these are all roads that ultimately lead nowhere, as in the latter stretches, the film simply throws up its hands and settles for a rather mundane, clichéd denouement, albeit one that affirms its message of love transcending circumstance, time, racial and cultural differences, and even death.
Pali Road opens April 29 in select AMC theaters around the U.S.